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Without filing fees, a grim future for those who need civil legal help

Without filing fees, a grim future for those who need civil legal help

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Joe Surkeiwicz Big

Over the last three decades, Maryland has built one of the most robust, innovative and effective civil legal services systems in the U.S., in large part because of the support and leadership of the Maryland Legal Services Corp.

Right now, however, MLSC needs the support of the General Assembly if it’s going to continue helping Maryland’s most vulnerable citizens.

Established by the General Assembly in 1982 to raise money and make grants to the state’s civil legal aid organizations, MLSC funds more than 35 programs around the state that provide critical legal help to low-income Marylanders.

“Last year, our grantees helped 174,000 low-income Marylanders navigate major legal crises like protecting their homes from foreclosure, getting protection from domestic violence abusers and helping veterans finally get the benefits they deserve,” said MLSC Chairman Glenn F. Ivey.

While the $16 million distributed last year came from a variety of sources, the main funding stream is surcharges on court filing fees. Here’s the rub: The surcharge, increased by the General Assembly in 2010 to plug a financial hole after the collapse of interest rates following the recession (and renewed in 2013), is set to expire in 2018.

“We are facing catastrophic cuts in programs of last resort for our most vulnerable citizens,” Ivey said.

To prevent the possibility of a cut, this year lawmakers on behalf of MLSC introduced HB 972 and SB 811 in the General Assembly to repeal the sunset provision and make the filing fees permanent. A hearing at the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Wednesday. The Senate bill hearing is scheduled for March 7 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“We’re not seeking to increase fees, just to maintain the status quo,” said Susan Erlichman, MLSC’s executive director. “We’ve weathered some tough financial times thanks to the General Assembly. It’s time for it to step up again.”

Who gets helped by the programs funded by MLSC?

“It’s veterans, single mothers, people re-entering society to become contributing members, people with disabilities, kids with education and schooling issues, the homeless and people at risk of losing their housing,” Erlichman said.

“Since 2010, the fee hasn’t created any problems for anyone,” she added. “The fees are lower than  surrounding states. If the filing fee surcharges went away, we’d lose about $6 million out of $16 million—over a third of our income.”

‘Soaring demand’

It’s money well spent. A 2013 study by the former Maryland Access to Justice Commission calculated a return of $6.29 on every dollar spent on civil legal services.

“That adds up to about $190 million generated every year in economic activity – cost savings and increased productivity,” Erlichman said. “Filing fees are the foundation of the revenue we use to make grants to programs across the state. Without it, the foundation will crumble. At the same time, demand for legal services has soared.”

Because demand for legal aid is up across the state, MLSC is also asking the General Assembly for an increase in its distribution from the Abandoned Property Fund. It cross-filed bills to increase the distribution from $1.5 million to $3 million.

“We’ve been spending from our reserves to avoid cutting grants, which haven’t been increased in years – and over a time of unprecedented need,” Erlichman said. “So we’re asking for a $1.5 million increase. We don’t want to reduce funding at a time of growing need.”

If the unthinkable happened and surcharges were to sunset, what would be the impact on MLSC’s grantees?

Last year, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service helped 4,500 low-income people by matching them with pro bono lawyers. The clients, for the most part, needed legal help with housing, consumer and family law problems.

“The need for our services is up dramatically, especially over the last few years with the financial crisis, the housing crisis and people needing expungements so they can enter the workforce,” said Bonnie Sullivan, executive director of MVLS. “We get more than 40 percent of our funding through MLSC. A 30-percent cut would be crippling. We’d have to dip into our reserves and reduce staff.”

At the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a loss of funding would have a direct impact on critical services. HPRP provides direct legal services to homeless people and people at risk of homelessness, as well as pursuing systemic solutions to homelessness.

“Each of our programs is run by one person on our staff,” said HPRP executive director Antonia Fasanelli. “With a 30-percent cut from MLSC, we would have to eliminate one of our programs, like our Rural Veterans Legal Assistance Project or our Homeless Youth Initiative—and that’s unacceptable.”

Editor’s Note: Joe Surkiewicz is retiring next week. This is his final Of Service column.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected].

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